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Disturbing report documents sexual harassment at Levi’s and Lee factory

Disturbing report documents sexual harassment at Levi’s and Lee factory
[Photo: KariHoglund/iStock]

A new report from the Washington-based worker-rights group Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) says that women working in an African factory that makes jeans for Levi’s, Lee, and The Children’s Place experience sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Some were coerced into having sex with supervisors to keep their jobs, the report says. The factory in question was in Lesotho, a poor country adjacent to South Africa. It was owned by a Taiwan-based company called Nien Hsing Textile, which has factories in Mexico, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The Worker Rights Consortium report describes many forms of sexual abuse that came to light from dozens of interviews. Managers—both foreign and local—allegedly forced female workers into sexual relationships in exchange for job security or promotions. There was also a pervasive culture of sexual harassment, including inappropriate touching and crude comments. Sometimes, the abuse even came from male colleagues, not just supervisors.

None of these brands have severed their relationship with the factory. This was, in part, based on the WCR’s own guidance. In its report, it says, “It is important to emphasize that the WRC, upon documenting these violations, did not ask Nien Hsing’s brand customers to stop doing business with the company. We asked the brands to maintain the business relationship and use their leverage to convince Nien Hsing to change its practices—consistent with the best interests of the workers…While it is necessary, ultimately, for brands to condition orders for their suppliers on respect for human rights, termination of the business relationship should be a last resort, given the economic consequences for workers.”

When we reached out to Levi’s, the VP of sustainability Michael Kobori wrote, “When we find violations of our Terms of Engagement, it is our policy to first call for suppliers to address the issue promptly and effectively, because a rapid withdrawal of sourcing does not ultimately remedy the problem and may further negatively impact workers and their livelihoods. Should remediation efforts ultimately prove unsuccessful, we move to sever the relationship.”

The brands mentioned in the report say they will now bring outside oversight and enforcement to the more than 10,000 people working across five Lesotho factories. The American apparel companies are funding a two-year program, in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development, that establishes an independent investigative group where workers can raise concern. According to the Associated Press, Levi’s, The Children’s Place, and Kontoor Brands, maker of Wrangler and Lee jeans, said in a joint statement they want all workers, especially women, to feel “safe, valued and empowered.” A spokesperson for The Children’s Place said it informed the Taiwanese company that their ongoing relationship “depends on effectuating significant and sustained changes.”

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